It was a harsh, blackened landscape over which the riders galloped, their cloaks billowing behind them like the clouds that drifted across the face of the full moon. Their black horses were breathing hard as their riders urged them onwards, their hooves pounding hard upon the rocky ground, the noise echoing like thunder. The Plain of Perpetua was a dreary, dead panorama of stunted trees and ancient stones, a bizarre blend of desert and moor. The sun never cast a bright light over this barren province of the Eternian Dark Continent, for the skies rarely cleared by day, leaving the land shrouded in an eerie, humid fog. By night, winds dragged away the wretched mist, replacing the humidity with tempestuous storms and dark clouds. Yet tonight there was moonlight enough for the riders to continue their journey towards Snake Mountain, stronghold of Skeletor.
The skull-faced demon rode at the head of the group, his skeletal visage clearly revealing the fury that coursed through his veins. None of the lackeys that followed him had dared to speak to Skeletor since He-Man had forced them to flee from Waedi'mort Pass five days earlier. They had ridden by day and night, seldom resting, thinking only of the battle that should have crushed King Randor, and Skeletor's wrath at the defeat. There had been no fault with Skeletor's tactics, and in reality victory should have been his. However, fate had clearly had other intentions.
Skeletor had watched his warriors cascade down the valley sides at Waedi'mort Pass, hurling themselves at Randor's small contingent, slaying the king's men with ease. And yet, what should have been the shortest battle in the history of Eternia, was flung into utter confusion at the appearance of Hordak. Decades had passed since Skeletor had banished his former mentor into a lost dimension, and the Lord of Destruction was both angered and dismayed at his mysterious return. And to make matters worse, Hordak had presented He-Man with the Powersword, the weapon that had killed Skeletor on the Moor of Doom. With the magical blade, He-Man had single-handedly turned the tide of the battle. Skeletor's minions had fled in fear at the sight of the enchanted blade, and been pursued to their deaths by Randor's men. Skeletor and his generals had escaped before He-Man was able to kill them, but only because He-Man had chosen to stay at the battle rather than follow them. Skeletor's ire had not diminished since the humiliating defeat, and as he fled towards Snake Mountain, he knew that his army was ruined. Furthermore, Hordak would hunt him down, seeking revenge for his banishment over forty years ago.
Blacker than the night sky, Snake Mountain rose from the plain like a giant dagger point, a harsh silhouette that stood defiantly in celebration of evil. As Skeletor and his cronies approached, towering doors of stone slowly opened outwards, revealing a great entranceway in the rock face. The riders entered the chamber which was lit by hundreds of torches, their blue flames seemingly cold and tainted with the darkness of the ancient citadel. Attendants rushed to hold the horses, and to assist the riders to dismount. The steeds were breathless now, their eyes wide and tormented. Once on foot, Skeletor strode away swiftly, raising his arm angrily and motioning his lackeys to follow.
The chamber to which Skeletor led them lay at the heart of the mountain. It was a large room, in the centre of which there stood a long rectangular table of polished black slate. On the table stood three fire bowls, and the flames that burned in these vessels were of the same eerie blue colour as the stronghold's thousands of torches. Thirty hideous chairs were positioned around the table, not of stone or wood, but of bone. It was here that Skeletor held counsel with his adherents. Waving his hand, he silently commanded his underlings to be seated.
For a while he stared at them, his rage too great for words. The warriors who sat at the table were not to blame for the disaster at Waedi'mort Pass, but they knew Skeletor would unleash his wrath at them, regardless of the facts. The demon's eyeless gaze penetrated each one in turn, causing them to shift uncomfortably on their seats. Skeletor's wraith, Scare Glow, was the only member of the group who appeared unconcerned at Skeletor's anger, but he sat in silence like the others. The cyborg Trap Jaw sat still, his mechanical arm resting awkwardly on the slate table. Beside him, the three-eyed Tri-Klops looked uneasily at the Lord of Destruction. His all-round vision saw everything in the room, but it was his centre eye that concentrated hardest at this moment. Also present was the huge bestial Beast Man, and beside him was Whiplash, the reptilian humanoid. And they were not the only hybrid creatures present, for across the table sat Clawful and Mer-Man, both ocean-dwelling warriors, but physiologically capable of living on land. Levyek, the leader of the Clan of the Skull, the martial artist Jitsu, the enchantress Evil-Lyn, and the enigmatic Zodac made up the numbers.
Skeletor stood at the head of the table. Suddenly he slammed his fist with such force on the table top that the vibration could be felt through the slate. "Hordak will die!" he screamed. "Hordak, Randor, He-Man and every other cursed, despicable vermin that seeks to prevent my conquest of Eternia! Hordak will rue the day he returned the Powersword to He-Man!" The Lord of Destruction fell silent, the red glow of his eyeless stare glaring with intense malevolence. Yet the outburst had evidently released some of his fury, for when he next spoke, his words were calmer. "Once again, victory has been seized from my grasp," he said quietly, and yet with conviction. "Randor's men were doomed. Even He-Man's arrival did nothing to prevent the slaughter. And yet the past has awoken..."
Evil-Lyn looked at Skeletor thoughtfully. "Perhaps you should tell us something of Hordak, Skeletor?"
Zodac nodded, and leaned forward on the table. "I agree with Evil-Lyn. Tell us what took place forty years ago, Skeletor," he said, his voice unable to conceal his curiosity. "Perhaps now is the time to separate rumour from truth?"
"Very well, lackeys," retorted Skeletor. "I shall tell you of Hordak." He dragged his chair back, and sat down. Certain that he had the group's attention, he began to speak. "Hordak was the leader of an army named the Horde. For years he governed much of Eternia, and forced the royal family into exile. I became a member of the Horde at the point when Randor was endeavouring to fight back. Hordak was a fool, and he let power slip from his grasp. His actions led to the destruction of the Horde. He sought to train me, but his lessons were useless. I saw the imminent collapse of his empire, and tried to avert it, but my efforts came too late. Yet I found a way to rid Eternia of his presence! I chanced upon an incantation that threw him into a portal, banishing him to a distant dimension!" His brief story complete, Skeletor leaned back in his chair, waiting for the inevitable questions.
Evil-Lyn considered Skeletor's words, knowing well that his version of events had been adapted to suit his purpose. "It seems remarkable that Hordak has returned to Eternia after such a lengthy absence," she stated. "Was it truly Hordak who we saw on the battlefield, Skeletor?"
"It was no impostor, enchantress!" retorted Skeletor. "How he returned is of little concern. What matters now is his intended purpose."
"I should imagine he is rather irritated at you, master," grunted Beast Man.
"Babbling blatherskite!" snapped Skeletor angrily. "Does anyone have any intelligent observations, or are you all as slow-witted as Beast Man?"
Tri-Klops cleared his throat. "Are we to assume that Hordak has formed an alliance with He-Man?"
Skeletor looked askance. This was clearly a possibility that he had failed to consider. He thought carefully for a moment before answering. "Comrade Tri-Klops asks an interesting question," he remarked. "Yet I do not believe that such an alliance exists. Hordak always considered himself to be a strategist. Giving the Powersword to He-Man was assuredly part of a grander scheme, from which he seeks to benefit. We shall have to watch Hordak closely."
"He will attempt to destroy you, Skeletor," observed Scare Glow, his voice dry and rasping. "The Horde will reform, for Hordak will not linger in the shadows for long."
"Scare Glow speaks wisely," Skeletor stated to the group. "You must be alert to danger. Furthermore, Hordak cannot be allowed to delay my conquest of Eternia!"
"Then we must devise strategies of our own," remarked Evil-Lyn.
Skeletor rose to his feet. "And we shall, Evil-Lyn. Your task is to find me a way of breaching the defences of Castle Grayskull." The Lord of Destruction walked quickly from the chamber, ignoring the despondent look that fell upon Evil-Lyn's ashen face.
The gates of Mar'alar were open when King Randor's army reached the fortress. Riding into the abandoned courtyard on Battle Cat, He-Man had scanned the building, soon realising that Skeletor's minions had fled from the stronghold. Continuing to Mar'alar had been a difficult decision to make after the battle at Waedi'mort Pass. The Eternian soldiers had suffered heavy losses, and were weary from the conflict. Trying to recapture the coastal fortress with a shattered army was a perilous proposal, but Man-At-Arms had decided that immediate action was needed against Skeletor's followers, while the king held the advantage of victory. Finding the fortress empty was a relief beyond measure. Evidently word of Skeletor's flight from the battlefield and the vanquishment of his warriors had reached those who had stayed at Mar'alar. Remaining in place to face Randor's wrath seemed to be an unacceptable course of action.
That night the army secured the fortress. They were too few in number to defend Mar'alar against an attack, but it seemed unlikely that Skeletor would be able to overthrow the fortress once again. Furthermore, by staying at Mar'alar, the army would be able to rest sufficiently after their days of marching, and the exhaustion of the battle at Waedi'mort Pass. Fortunately their support waggons had been left relatively undamaged by Skeletor's assault, which meant there was sufficient food for the men without the need for strict rationing. Unsurprisingly, there was nothing left to eat at Mar'alar. Indeed the fortress was little more than a shell of four enormous walls, for everything had been ransacked and stolen, including the weapons from the armoury.
Campfires were lit in the courtyard, for on this first night in the stronghold, the men were too tired to clear out and repair the living quarters, electing instead to pass the night under canvas. In symbolic contempt of Skeletor, great beacons were set ablaze along the battlements, proudly displaying that once again King Randor's men held Mar'alar. The flames burned vigorously against the backdrop of the starless, cloudy night, and succeeded in lifting the spirits of the men. The chatter around the tents was lively and animated. Though they would mourn their fallen comrades in due course, tonight the soldiers needed to congratulate themselves on a great victory for the free people of Eternia.
Around one fire sat Randor, Fisto, Man-At-Arms and He-Man. They too were heartened by the success at Waedi'mort Pass, and the reoccupation of Mar'alar, but they were mindful that issues needed to be discussed. As Battle Cat lay at rest nearby, the men spoke of Hordak and Skeletor.
"You have done well, my friends," said Randor softly, staring into the glowing flames of the campfire. "Yet there is much work still to be done. Skeletor has harmed us greatly, and though the wounds are deep, our recovery must be swift."
"Skeletor does not present the only threat, sire," stated He-Man. "It is clear from his appearance at Waedi'mort Pass, that Hordak has schemes of his own."
"And yet he returned the Powersword to you," remarked Fisto. "Speak of your encounter, He-Man, for the methods of Hordak are entwined in mystery."
"He sought to repay a debt to me," replied He-Man. "For it was I who enabled him to return to Eternia, to my eternal regret! He considers us all as his enemies, but for now at least, his wrath is focused on Skeletor."
"Curious," remarked Man-At-Arms. "It would appear that our old adversary is gaining strength, but is not yet ready to challenge Skeletor."
"Or us," remarked Randor. "And yet, by intervening at Waedi'mort Pass, he reveals something of his plan. While Skeletor and I do battle, both our armies are weakened. Hordak will take advantage of that."
"But when?" questioned Fisto. "How long before he is ready to fight?"
"I cannot answer that, Fisto," replied Randor. "We must do all that we can to prepare for further conflict, knowing it will come, but not when."
Man-At-Arms played idly with a twig, stirring the fire. For a while the men were silent, watching the sparks drift skywards from the burning timber. For He-Man, recent events had given him a renewed approach to his duty. The challenge presented by Hordak intrigued him, for Hordak was a very different character to Skeletor, yet equally dangerous. He was ready to face this new opponent, ready to adapt to the strategy and cunning of the former leader of the Horde. Reunited with the Powersword, the legendary weapon of Castle Grayskull, He-Man felt able once again to defend the mystical fortress and the people of Eternia. He bore a great responsibility, but he had learned to carry it proudly.
For He-Man's companions, the flickering light and shadow of the campfire took them back into the past. Randor, Fisto and Man-At-Arms were old men now, and they had dedicated their lives to the defence of Eternia from those despotic demons who sought to deprive the people of their liberties. Veterans of war, these men had fought side by side many times, and remembered well the battles they had fought as young men against Hordak and his minions. They were confident that good would prevail over evil, and knew that He-Man was the greatest warrior ever to wield the Powersword. Yet their thoughts were tainted by sadness, for it seemed that in all the years that had passed, they had never succeeded in their mission to rid Eternia of evil. Long ago, many of their friends had died fighting the Horde, as the young king and his fearless companions fought back against Hordak's oppression. And when Hordak had been banished, Skeletor had taken up the fight. Yes, they had transformed Eternia, bringing hope and joy to the lives of the people, but freedom had been hard won, and conflict was never absent for long.